Public Education Matters

Canton McKinley High School student Nehemiah Culver was born with cerebral palsy, limiting his range of motion in his hands. That did not stop him from dreaming that he could one day play the guitar. So, three Canton educators worked together with their students to create a device that would allow Nehemiah to achieve his goal and perform in the high school's Winter Music Festival.

Show Notes

'Where there's a will, there's a way' - Canton Professional EA  members create assistive device for student to play guitar - Season 3, Episode 21
Canton McKinley High School student Nehemiah Culver was born with cerebral palsy, limiting his range of motion in his hands. That did not stop him from dreaming that he could one day play the guitar. So, three Canton educators worked together with their students to create a device that would allow Nehemiah to achieve his goal and perform in the high school's Winter Music Festival.
MORE | This episode features excerpts of an interview that was conducted for a feature story in OEA's Ohio Schools magazine. Check out the Febraury/March 2023 edition of the magazine for the full article.

SUBSCRIBE | Click here to subscribe to Education Matters on Apple Podcasts or click here to subscribe on Google podcasts so you don't miss a thing. And don't forget you can listen to all of the previous episodes anytime on your favorite podcast platform, or by clicking here.

Featured Education Matters guests: 
  • George Dean, Director of Guitar - McKinley Senior High School, Canton
  • Chad Weaver, PLTW Instructor & Digital Electronics Master Teacher
  • Dona Brown, PT, MPT, Physical Therapist, Canton City Schools
Connect with OEA:
About us:
  • The Ohio Education Association represents about 120,000 teachers, faculty members and support professionals who work in Ohio’s schools, colleges, and universities to help improve public education and the lives of Ohio’s children. OEA members provide professional services to benefit students, schools, and the public in virtually every position needed to run Ohio’s schools.
  • Education Matters host Katie Olmsted serves as Media Relations Consultant for the Ohio Education Association. She joined OEA in May 2020, after a ten-year career as an Emmy Award winning television reporter, anchor, and producer. Katie comes from a family of educators and is passionate about telling educators' stories and advocating for Ohio's students. She lives in Central Ohio with her husband and two young children.
This episode was recorded in January, 2023.

What is Public Education Matters?

Ohio's public schools serve 1.6 million children - 90 percent of students in the state! What happens in the classroom has impacts far beyond the walls of the K-12 school building or higher ed lecture hall. So, on behalf of the 120,000 members of the Ohio Education Association, we're taking a deeper dive into some of the many education issues facing our students, educators, and communities. Originally launched in 2021 as Education Matters, Public Education Matters is your source for insightful conversations with the people who shape the education landscape in Ohio. Have a topic you'd like to hear about on Public Education Matters? Email us at

Intro 0:07
This is Education Matters, brought to you by the Ohio Education Association.

Katie Olmsted 0:15
Thanks for joining us for this edition of Education Matters. I'm Katie Olmsted. And I'm part of the communications team for the Ohio Education Association, and the 120,000 k-12 teachers, education support professionals, and higher ed faculty members OEA represents. This week, we're bringing you bits of a conversation with three of those members in the Canton Education Association. George Dean is the director of the guitar program at McKinley High School, Dona Brown is a physical therapist in Canton City Schools, and Chad Weaver helps Career and Technical Education pre-engineering students learn how to design and print 3d projects, among other things. They put their heads together and their talents to work this fall to help a 15-year-old student, Nehemiah Culver, learn to play the guitar. Culver was born with cerebral palsy, and needed an assistive device -- one invented by these educators and their students -- to be able to play the instrument and join a guitar ensemble in the winter concert last year. The dedicated educators recently shared their story with Julie Newhall, the editor of OEA's Ohio Schools magazine. On this episode of the podcast, we're going to listen to parts of Julie's conversation with them. It starts with a question for George Dean about what led him to reach out to Chad Weaver and his engineering students after Nehemiah expressed interest in learning the guitar.

George Dean
Working with Mr. Weaver over the last several years, I've witnessed what he does regularly and his nothing is impossible attitude. And I kind of like that, too. So. So I like, I feel that I'm not near as smart as him.

Chad Weaver 2:17
Stop it. Stop it.

George Dean 2:20
But, but I do what I do. And I know I could do that well, but But wow, I there's no engineering side to that. So I, I knew that he would be on board for it. And we share a common love for the job - for the problems and solving them. And I was just really excited to have Nehemiah be a part of the class. And I didn't, I don't like to make pre judgments. Just by seeing how, you know, Nehemiah's disability, I wanted to see how I could serve that. And I knew Chad would be that guy do help me figure that out. So it you know, it was just a lot of actually during this time, we would just kind of grab, you know, find each other. And Dona would get Nehemiah and we would just, you know, brainstorming, you know, when I having him in my classroom, I was able to, you know, get some kind of semblance of the idea that what we had to do, but, you know, needed Chad and Dona to definitely figure out how to do it. So that's - Go ahead, Chad.

Chad Weaver 3:42
I keep them, all my students involved in, in any project we're working on for other people because it's about engineering design. So he said, Hey, I have an opportunity, I need to go up to the cafeteria real quick. Take a look at this student, blah, blah, blah. Well, they knew who I was talking about. Some of the students knew that Nehemiah wanted to play guitar.

George Dean 4:00
Several of them, I mean, several are in my class.

Chad Weaver 4:03
Several of my engineering students are in George's guitar class. So it actually worked out really nice. Went took a few videos of his range of motion. Said, hey, can you hold up a fake guitar for me, show me how you would do it? So again, because I have no idea - I know what George wanted, but how am I going to make this happen? And Dona, you said this the most: "Where there's a will, there's a way," you know, and there's no word, there's no "can't," that we can't solve this problem. So

Dona Brown 4:32
I think that day in the cafeteria was - I always try to remind myself because as therapists we want things to look like they're good, perfect. And it's taken me years to throw that in the trash because that's not real. It's function. So I think we were all trying to look at the first prototype that you had and he was having trouble with it and a lot of times I do when I cue him, I say, look, show us how you can move your arm, how you can do this? What's the easiest way? Because that's what we need to work with. And I do that with him when he's walking or when we're doing all activities, we usually problem solve, just trying to figure out what is the best way? What's the easiest way? And I always say, I don't care what it looks like, we just need to see how to make you functional.

George Dean 5:27
And I think what's, you know, in to piggyback on that with, you know, developing a skill that is that, like all students have they don't they, students that don't have that need that Nehemiah does, still have specific motor skills they need to develop. And I didn't want to like, make pre-judgments about anything, so that to see what he was capable of developing. I'm glad kind of the trajectory, it happened. Because it just the other day, he was really starting to isolate strains. And yeah, he's gonna take little time, but he was really so I think that's the coolest part is just the several prototypes that Chad kept, you know, he would take that information that Dona gave him and that he got from Nehemiah, and then myself, and actually seeing him with the guitar - had to get him a smaller guitar - but he just kept shaving away, I - It was a DaVinci that said that he just carve away until like, appeared. And so from the very first prototype, which was this big thing. And it turned into this really refined small device now.

Chad Weaver 6:57
And you know, it's interesting, and George you mentioned it - I think we were giving each other feedback as adults, but my most powerful feedback was from Nehemiah. Because the first prototype he says, "Yeah, it really sucks." I mean, that was his words, you know? And I'm like, "Thank you!" you know, because that's what I need on my design side. And again, the whole process, we wanted to get something out to him -

George Dean 7:22
and when I first got it, I gave it to him, he goes, "What am I gonna do with that?" Right? "Well, we're gonna talk to Mr. Weaver."

Chad Weaver 7:35
And that first one was designed just from that initial meeting. I took some video of how his wrist was, how his wrist would sit and the brace he had on his wrist and said, well, and I use my hand as a model for it. And obviously, it didn't work. And then even the second one was closer, but it's still slid around too much. And it's that's part of the engineering design process, you know

Dona Brown 8:01
I think he didn't show you his hand brace until this, maybe the second one because I was like, where's your hand brace?

George Dean 8:07
Yeah, we didn't know there was a brace.

Chad Weaver 8:09
Well, yeah, that's when I came up with the Velcro idea. Because I said, 'Wait, there's already Velcro there. Let's utilize that.' Yeah, cuz that was the was that the third one? That was the third or fourth prototype?

George Dean 8:20
Well, that was the third one for sure. Third, yeah, actually, the second one had all kinds of like it look really cool.

Chad Weaver 8:26
It had a lot of moving parts. And keep it simple, right? Education is K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple, Stupid. And so we went to the simplistic approach, and that's what worked.

George Dean 8:37
And he ended up playing - He was playing on the concert. You know, in some ways, I don't know if I ever told you this, there was a guitarist named Django Reinhardt. He was, he was very popular in like the 30s and 40s, World War II. He was super famous, changed the way guitar was played. And it was, he was in an accident, and burned his, his left hand to where he only really had use of two fingers. And he would use the two that were that were kind of fused together here. And he would use it in a way accordingly, like he kind of revolutionized how - an entire style developed from it. And that was something that I just kept saying to myself, "Don't get too attached to anything because you don't know what doors gonna open." And I tried to have that approach.

Dona Brown 9:28
I think we even, George and I, in the beginning, we went from putting the guitar on his lap to,

George Dean 9:35

Dona Brown 9:35
To then no, we need just the way he holds his hand. We kind of talked about Yeah, that would be the best if we could get a strap and

George Dean 9:42
we ended up getting classical foot pillow, the pillow that would hold it up, and it didn't work. So and the cool thing about it is his attitude is like that's the biggest thing here because he's like, never frustrated. Well, I mean he gets frustrated but he doesn't quit. And he's always got the best attitude.

Dona Brown 10:04
I've known Nehemiah for, since his mom was actually pregnant with him, so I've been with him since preschool. He, at one point back in elementary school, he was, had a lot more function. He was running down the hall in a walker. And, you know, we would always laugh, he'd get in trouble because he was running. And so he's had a couple of hip surgeries. And the rehab didn't go as well with the pain tolerance and working through the range of motion. So we've had to kind of step back and, like, as what I said, work with, with who he is. And that's what I tell them, 'It's who you are. And, you know, you're just, you just always have to push through what you want to do. And if you want to do something, we'll figure it out to get you to where you need to be.' And when I do meet him, I do see him on Monday, and sometimes Thursday too, he'll bring up, do you think we're gonna get back to that other walker sometime? And so I said, 'Yep, we definitely will. We just got to get this going.' And so he definitely keeps in the back of his mind. You know, his goal of getting back to the other walker

George Dean 11:26
Well, she did give me feedback on, you know, as I'm teaching him to develop what he -the technique with, especially with his left hand, what, because there's a lot of part parts that can work from the shoulder to the elbow to the wrist. And, you know, I don't have the expertise is as Dona does to know, 'hey, is it okay for me to push this?' And she would give me that feedback.

Dona Brown 11:56
Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

George Dean 11:57
And that's what prompted me to like I was adamant about at the beginning that that when the device was the pick that he's using, that he not the pick not be fixed, because it was, you know, talking with her and seeing him on the guitar that saw what he was capable of this motion. And I was wondering, you know, wanting to explore the possibility of refining the motion. And having that pick, if we have affixed it, which would seem like the natural thing to do, would have never gave him the feedback he needs. Now when he plays - as I was telling Chad - when he we get them playing some Michael Jackson and that kind of stuff, and he's gonna have to beat that guitar up, then we'll probably have to do for that for technique. But

Dona Brown 12:46
But now I don't know, if you told them, but you sent me that video. This video that George did was amazing. So he - did you tell them about that? You broke it up. He made a video just for Nehemiah, where he broke up the song and talked through it so that Nehemiah could understand and practice, which was really, really impressive.

George Dean 13:10
Oh, thank you.

Dona Brown 13:11
So, yeah, but I know him, and I know that that helped him a lot with that.

George Dean 13:15
Well, thank you for that. You know, I know that there's probably no situation that is a cookie cutter one size fits all.

Dona Brown 13:26

George Dean 13:27
But the workflow and the dynamic, I think, is very fluid to this, solving this problem. And so it opens up for me as a guitarist, and um, I, it opens up possibilities for me being able to not see a limitation as a stopping point that someone will have, have the ability to do this.

Dona Brown 13:59
That's great. That's, I guess, when you asked that question earlier about, like Nehemiah, his range of motion, his limitations. I always put that back onto him, onto my students like, you show me, show us, how you move and then we go from there. So it's more of making, making the student, making Nehemiah aware of how can you move? What can you do? Now the endurance piece, pushing him. You know, just like when I do walking with him, I'll give him a choice. Because it's he's got to be the one to set the goal, not me. It's what he wants. So like I'll say, would you want to walk longer and pick a distance or do you want to pick time and walk without stopping a certain time or something like that? So just giving him the options of pushing him to think about like, with a Guitar, think about -

George Dean 15:02
So, when I was giving him his music, I rewrote the music. He was playing with - It's like a band or orchestra, so everybody's playing different parts. They're not all just strumming chords. There's all these complex pieces that fit together to create an ensemble fairing. So, him being a part of that class, actually, to speak a little bit different, that has made them - they've really rallied around that. Like, it's kind of changed the dynamic of the class. It really, really has. Because I had some challenging behavior issues in that class, which I, you know, I handle, I'm used to, it's no problem but, but I've seen students get more serious because about this, yeah, they're going there. But I would rewrite his part to go with his ability when what Chad's designed and where he's at, physically, so he's basically doing it on one string. And now he's doing two strings. Now he's got a piece that we're going to try to go from the high - the string closest to his nose, the low E with that, but it's the highest one, down to the high E, which is the one lowest of the floor, and he's gonna try making a shift. And that's, I think that's tremendous

Dona Brown 16:27
And that's part you know, with with Nehemiah, I just say, you know, what, we keep practicing, we keep practicing. Every time we do this, we get better and better. Well, I, we he sees that every week, when we do PT, his walking, you know, from the start of the year, I mean, with the pandemic, you know, he was set back pretty far with his walking. So that's kind of where we're coming out of with the walking. And so every week, he's just making more and more improvements. So

Chad Weaver 16:57
For me, this is a one off project. So this this particular device helps Nehemiah. Will that device help someone else? I can't say that it would or would not. But that concept could help somebody else. George had mentioned earlier, so I had a student last year, actually a staff member came to me, he has a prosthetic limb and he was tired of his pant leg flapping in the wind, because the diameter of the prosthetic limb was about an inch and a half diameter where his real leg is about, I think we figured out it's like four, I think it was like a three and a half or four inch diameter. So he says there's something you can do to add to this. Well I gotta look at the integrity of the leg. It's a $40,000 prosthetic that we can't drill a hole in, right? So I put a student on it who was done with all their work, and she went and measured his real leg and designed something that could be 3-D printed, that could fit on there and stay on there. So that's one thing. And any, anytime I can get the students involved, I feel it's their civic duty as engineers, it's our civic duty to help people you know, in any facet, whether it's the biomedical realm, whether it's a new bridge design, new chair, so they need to always constantly think of how is this device, or how are you what are your designing is going to help people? And that's kind of my focus. And like George said earlier, there is no quit, there's no, there's no problem that can't be solved. And sometimes you have to think outside the box. Another project that we're currently working on and Dona, I'm gonna need you to give more detail, but our senior students are designing a set of stairs for the elementary students, and Dona I'm gonna let you get more detail.

Dona Brown 18:37
Um, it's actually our preschool building, and one of my preschoolers, she's in a walker, but is transition - I'm transitioning her to crutches. So in order for her to get to the sink to wash her hands, she needs a step with handrails, so that she can step up and be able to reach the soap and water and and be safe.

Chad Weaver 19:02
So our students are designing those stairs right now. Hopefully, Dona, we'll have them done here soon. And that way they can transition into that. Yeah. And I believe we have another project coming up which I don't know what it is yet. Because again, the more of my, our students, the engineering students, can get involved in designing real world scenarios, being able to test them, go on site and see their failures and their successes, that's what makes this powerful.

George Dean 19:32
Our thanks to Julie Newhall for sharing her conversation with Chad Weaver, Dona Brown and George Dean with us for this podcast episode. As we mentioned, we just heard excerpts from that full interview here. To read Julie's full feature story on what Mr. Weaver, Mr. Dean and Ms. Brown were able to achieve for Nehemiah, make sure you check out the February/March edition of Ohio Schools coming to your mailbox or available on OEA's website, And while you're online, make sure you subscribe to Education Matters wherever you get your podcasts so you don't miss an episode in the future. Next week, we're hearing from the reporters who have really changed the game and changed a whole community's perspective on their local public schools through their in depth reporting for the Cleveland's Promise series. It is truly phenomenal reporting and I can't wait to share their perspectives with you. New episodes of Education Matters drop every Thursday. Until next time, stay well.

Transcribed by